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Before She Was Helen by Caroline B. Cooney

Caroline B. Cooney is known for her young adult novels but she was intrigued with telling the story of someone who chose or was forced to live their life as a different person and managed to do it for almost 50 years. The resulting novel is her first for adults, Before She Was Helen.

Cooney’s effort is a well-done tale of surviving life’s challenges with a little murder and mayhem thrown in. NoveList (a reader’s advisory tool available through the catalog or the library website) describes the novel as compelling, funny, suspenseful, and intricately plotted with authentic characters. It’s the library’s pick for the Spring Book Discussion scheduled for April 26th from 6:00-7:00 p.m.

Helen is a semi-retired teacher living in the Sun City Retirement Village. The village is nice but bland. On a forgetful day a resident may need the garage door opener to identify their unit by which door goes up. You can be anyone you want to be and no one questions your past.

This suits Helen fine. She can have friends and participate in the lifestyle without too many awkward questions. Helen’s neighbor, Dom, may like the anonymity too but he doesn’t participate. He is an unpleasant man who doesn’t invite friendship. However, he and Helen have an arrangement. After a fall he gave her a key to his unit to be used only if he misses his daily check-in.

On the summer morning that begins this novel, Dom has not texted his usual message or responded to her text and phone call. Reluctant about what she might find, Helen uses the key. Dom is not inside the villa and in fact his golf cart (his transportation) is not in the garage. There is, however, a connecting door to next villa. This villa is largely unoccupied as the owners rarely come to stay and Helen knows of no other villas with a door between the units.

Doing her due diligence, she goes back through Dom’s place and over to the next villa. When there is no answer to the doorbell and repeated knocks Helen goes back to the connecting door. Could Dom be in the next villa? His missing golf cart says no but now she really wants to see the next villa.

Dom is not there and the villa appears so empty that Helen doubts anyone ever lives there. A rainbow of light catches her eye and she discovers a beautiful glass tree dragon sculpture. Unable to resist she snaps a picture with her cell phone and goes home.

Wanting to share her discovery with her great niece and nephew she sends the photo from Helen’s phone to her family phone, Clemmie’s phone, and texts the beautiful sculpture. For most of her adult life the world has known her as Helen. Clemmie only exists for her family and they know nothing of Helen.

The response Clemmie gets is surprising. The glass sculpture is actually a rig for smoking marijuana. The tree dragon was stolen from the maker, Borobasq, and Clemmie’s nephew has already contacted him about her discovery.

Clemmie’s fingerprints are in the villa with the stolen statue. Then her niece sends her news from her hometown, the decades old murder of the high school basketball coach is being reopened. The same coach who forced her transformation from Clemmie to Helen.

To add to her worry, Borobasq soon finds her. The glass maker is actually a drug dealer and whoever stole the rig took his cash, lots of cash. He has come to find his money and inflict a little pain. Before he can determine Helen’s involvement in the theft a body is found in Dom’s garage.

With the sheriff questioning her about what happened next door while a drug dealer hides in her bathroom, Helen has to think fast. Can she figure out what is going on before Clemmie is exposed and her two worlds collide?

Cooney takes us back and forth from Clemmie’s youth through young adulthood and Helen’s situation. We go from the culture of the 1950’s to navigating senior living and modern conveniences. “Her life didn’t turn out the way she expected—so she made herself a new one” is accurate and inadequate. There is so much more to Helen’s story which is why it’s a good pick for the library’s Spring Book Discussion.

The Spring Book Discussion for Before She Was Helen will be Monday, April 26th, from 6:00-7:00 p.m. via Zoom. You can find the link on handouts at the library and it will be posted on the Joplin Public Library Facebook page. We hope you’ll join us.

The library has this title in print and in the ebook format on both MoLib2Go.org (Overdrive) and Hoopla. If you find the print and MoLib2Go.org titles checked out, it is always available on Hoopla.

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